Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and chairman of Pakistan's largest political party, is favored to win the September 6 presidential poll in Pakistan.
More than half of the 700-member Electoral College so far has publicly pledged their support for Zardari, who heads the Pakistan People's Party (PPP). But the jury will be out until the result of the secret ballot is announced.
The remaining votes are likely to be split between the other two candidates: former chief justice Saeeduzzaman Siddiqui of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) and Mushahid Hussain Sayed of the Pakistan Muslim League Qaid-i-Azam (PML-Q).
In a telephone interview with RFE/RL from Karachi, Sayed claimed that the main contest is between Zardari and himself. But Sayed says he has the moral high ground because he leads in the opinion polls and is not tainted by corruption charges.
"This is a presidential election where the personalities also count. People have the choice between Mr. Zardari -- his track record, his character, what he stands for -- and myself. I have a clean track record, and there have never been any charges against me," Sayed said.
Zardai spent 11 years in prison during the past two decades on corruption charges ranging from money laundering to illegally buying mansions in England. But his party claims the allegations were part of smear campaigns by successive governments aimed at discrediting their leaders.
Last October, then-President Pervez Musharraf issued a controversial decree that eventually resulted in most court proceedings against Zardari being dropped.
Some analysts in Pakistan credit him with leading his party to victory in the February 18 polls after his wife's assassination on December 27. Zardari also has been praised for forming a broad political coalition to reassert civilian control over government and to oust Musharraf from power. Musharraf resigned on August 18 after the governing coalition initiated impeachment proceedings against him.
Zahid Hussain, an author and a political commentator, told RFE/RL from Islamabad that much will depend on what Zardari does after assuming the president’s office.
"At this point he [Zardari] does not have much credibility. Basically, with him in the presidency, everyone will gravitate around him which means that it can actually harm the powers of the parliament which will not be good for the parliamentary system of the government," Hussain said.
The 1973 constitution envisioned Pakistan as a British-style parliamentary democracy with the prime minister as the head of the executive and the president a symbolic figurehead.
But former General Musharraf, through a plaint parliament, granted himself enormous extra authority. Besides the powers to appoint senior civilian and military leaders, the president also can dissolve the parliament and has control over the country’s nuclear weapons.Rising Violence
But if Zardari wins the presidency, he also will inherit mammoth problems. During the past month, hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of civilians, militants, and soldiers have died in fresh fighting between security forces and militants in the tribal districts of Waziristan, Kurram, and Bajaur and the Swat Valley of the North West Frontier Province.
Suicide attacks against the security forces and civilians have resumed with a new ferocity. On August 21, a twin suicide attack on Pakistan's main weapons factory in Wah close to the capital Islamabad killed 67.
Hussain, the political commentator, says the civilian government led by Zardari's PPP has so far carried on the antiterrorism policies of the past government and appears committed to enhancing antiterrorism cooperation with the United States.
He adds that the recent military operations in Swat and Bajaur are regarded as among the most effective of the last five years. But political expediency appeared to be at work on September 1 when the military suspended operations for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
"At this point [it] seemed that for the first time the military had really pushed the militants to the corner," Hussain said. "The tribesmen have also been organizing themselves to fight the Taliban. So any suspension of the military operation will discourage those tribesmen and it will also allow the Taliban to regroup."
In Karachi, candidate Sayed -- a former journalist and newspaper editor -- maintains that the next president needs to rise above the controversies usually associated with high office in Pakistan. He says the president must address fundamental political, economic, and security challenges.
Meeting such high expectations will be challenging for the 52-year-old Zardari. After all, the man who loved horses and polo in his youth was once demonized as "Mr. 10 percent" -- a reference to his alleged bribe-taking -- when his wife Bhutto twice served as prime minister during the 1990s.